Signed Exact English: A Brief Introduction

Late deafened adults often have trouble learning ASL due to the different grammar, and the fact that ASL does not model English exactly. Luckily there is Signed Exact English, or SEE, which can be easier for the people who become deaf later in life to learn.

SEE attempts to model English exactly, and it can come very close. It includes 14 “marker” words, which help replace the nuances of English and make the language easier to understand. The 14 markers, include: the possessives ‘s’, the -ly, -y, a past participle form, and the verb form-ing, among others.

ASL often does not include words that may be important to the late deafened adult; words like he, she, it, and other small function words may be missing, and the signs for “pretty”, and “beautiful” are often the same. This can be very confusing for someone whose native language is English, and who wants to express themselves in sign language or needs others to. Signing Exact English can be a big help, since that is exactly what many late deafened people are trying to do, and Signed English, unlike ASL allows them to do it.

Signed English has an advantage over ASL for children as well. Many deaf children have difficulty learning to read because their native language is ASL, but they are being taught to read English. When deaf people are considered as a cultural /language group the problem here becomes more apparent. Deaf children are being taught to read a language they don’t speak ! Signing Exact English and using the 14 sign markers it provides can provide a better model for these children and help them to learn to read English more easily.

ASL and Signing Exact English are two different languages and should be treated as such if you are learning to sign, while SEE borrows a lot of words from ASL, they are not the same. A person who learns SEE for themselves, may also want to learn ASL in order to talk to many deaf people whose native language it is.

Signed English often gets combined with ASL to create “Pidgin sign language” or PSE. Also known as “contact signing”, this is actually the most commonly found sign language system, particularly on campuses like Gallaudet University. PSE is often unique to each signer, some people may skip words like “a” and “the” and others may skip suffixes and prefixes. Most people who use sign language, sign this way, often adding to the confusion of someone learning to sign.

Signed English was started in 1972, by two women, one of whom was deaf, and one of whom was the daughter of deaf parents. Currently the only group officially supporting it is the SEE Center. It is often reported as the most used signing system in the country and is used to some extant all over the world.

Signed English also has the advantage of being printable in a way ASL is not. Because it models English, classic books and poems can be printed in SEE without losing a lot “in translation”, as they often do when printed in ASL. This can give a deaf child a chance to benefit from such classics as “A Night Before Christmas”, at a much earlier age. Both Gallaudet University and modern signs press, currently print books in signed English.

For more information on signed English, you can visit the SEE Center at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 + six =